Russian rebels advance in Debaltseve, ceasefire close to collapse

img2Pro-Russian rebels bombarded government troops encircled in east Ukraine yesterday and a plan for both sides to pull back their heavy guns stalled, pushing a fragile peace deal closer to collapse. A witness near the front line said artillery rounds rocked the town of Debaltseve every five seconds and black smoke rose skywards, despite a truce that has eased fighting in many areas since the European-brokered deal took effect on Sunday.
The rebels said they had captured parts of Debaltseve, which sits on a strategic railway junction, and that some Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered, but Kiev denied this. “At the moment there is fierce fighting on the outskirts of the town. There are clashes around the station. But our forces are holding their positions and they are completely within their rights to open fire in response,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. Hopes that the deal reached last Thursday would end a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people were always low after a rebel advance in January scuppered an earlier truce.
But the ferocity of the fighting at Debaltseve was unexpected and has heightened concerns in Kiev and the West that the separatists and Russian President Vladimir Putin want to cement the latest rebel gains before peace takes hold. Military trucks and tanks came and went in the largely destroyed village of Nikishine as the rebels pounded nearby Debaltseve with Grad rockets, heavy artillery and mortar bombs. Palls of smoke hung over Debaltseve, which has a peacetime population of about 25,000 and has been under fire for weeks.
Monitors from the OSCE security group were expected to try to reach the besieged town after Germany said it had agreed steps with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to ensure they had “free access” in the east. But a new call by Berlin for peace and for the withdrawal of heavy weapons to start as scheduled yesterday under the peace deal, reached at all-night talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk on Thursday, fell largely on deaf ears. “We do not have the right (to stop fighting for Debaltseve). It’s even a moral thing. It’s internal territory,” said Denis Pushilin, a senior separatist representative, setting the goal of “destroying the enemy’s fighting positions”.

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